“Nice climate you have here. High oxygen content,” says Commander John J. Adams. Robby the Robot replies, “I seldom use it myself, sir. It promotes rust.”
50 years ago, Gene Roddenberry unleashed his new TV series Star Trek upon the world. One of its biggest influences was a “little” sci-fi movie that was released in theaters a decade earlier called Forbidden Planet. The Fred M. Wilcox-directed film was a pioneering one; it was the first A-budget sci-fi picture, the first sci-fi film with a scope aspect ratio, the first film to depict humans traveling faster than the speed of light in a spaceship they created, its special effects were the very best from that era, its electronic music was ground-breaking (and a tad controversial at the time), and, of course, it gave us the lovable, unforgettable Robby the Robot. For years I had only caught parts of the film on TV, and it wasn’t until 13 years ago that I finally saw Forbidden Planet on the big screen at Symphony Space as part of their sci-fi film retrospective, and it was a marvelous experience. This 60th anniversary review of Forbidden Planet is my entry in the Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Movies of the 1950s Blogathon hosted by myself, The Cinematic Frontier.
1956’s Forbidden Planet follows the crew of the starship C-57D as they journey to the distant planet Altair IV to investigate the fate of a 20 year-old expedition to that world. Wilcox gathered together a fine ensemble that included Walter Pidgeon (as Dr. Edward Morbius), Leslie Nielsen (as Commander John J. Adams), Anne Francis (as Altaira Morbius), Warren Stevens (as Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow), Jack Kelly (as Lieutenant Jerry Farman), Richard Anderson (as Chief Quinn), Earl Holliman (as Cook), George Wallace (as Steve), Bob Dix (as Grey), Jimmy Thompson (as Youngerford), James Drury (as Strong), Harry Harvey Jr. (as Randall), Roger McGee (as Lindstrom), Peter Miller (as Moran), Morgan Jones (as Nichols), Richard Grant (as Silvers), and Marvin Miller (as the voice of Robby the Robot). Pidgeon is a strong prescence as the great scientist who’s studied a long-dead alien civilzation almost alone for years, truly bringing a Shakespearean feel to his character. Nielsen is stern and heroic as the commander of his vessel (he is as strong a dramatic actor as he was as a comedic one, which he later became much more famous for with the Airplane! and Naked Gun trilogy). Francis brings charm and some naivitee to Altaira, and has great chemistry with Nielson.
The screenplay by Cyril Hume, while not technically a sci-fi adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is certainly inspired by it (some of the main characters and story elements are very similar). George J. Folsey’s cinematography gives the film a slightly eerie yet beautiful look, and the production design by Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Longeran is incredible (from the otherworldly exteriors to the massive underground Krell interiors). The Oscar-nominated special effects by A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Ries, and Wesley C. Miller are fantastic (the Krell underground is a stunning achievememt), and Ferris Webster’s editing moves the film along at a fine pace. Louis and Bebe Barron’s score creates an electronic soundscape that blends itself with the narrative and sound effects (the Barrons’ score was credited as ‘electronic tonalities’ partly to avoid paying any film industry music guild fees, and, since they didn’t belong to a musicians union, they were ineligible for any Academy Award nominations). Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet is an Oscar-nominated, trailblazing sci-fi film whose influence is far-reaching (many sci-fi TV shows and movies have been influenced by it, most famously Star Trek) and has earned its status as a sci-fi classic.